The buyer took a gamble: he didn’t know what the box contained, but he bid on it anyway. He paid $380 for the mystery box at a low-key Chicago auction house, but its contents, he would soon discover, were worth considerably more.
The year was 2007, and the buyer was John Maloof, an amateur historian. President of the local history society on Chicago’s northwest side, he had become interested in the neighborhood’s past while working as a realtor.
He decided to co-author a book, Portage Park, that he hoped would spark interest in the occasionally overlooked area. The publisher needed more than 200 vintage photos for the project, so Maloof began hunting for them at auction houses.
Maloof knew the box he bought contained old negatives, but he didn’t know what they were of. After hauling the box home, he and his colleague unfortunately found nothing suitable inside it. They stashed it in a closet, where it remained for a year.
Later Maloof decided to examine his purchase more closely. He was intrigued by the negatives and prints, but owing to a lack of photography expertise he couldn’t ascertain their value.
Because he was so inspired, however, the historian decided to take photography lessons. He was a natural, so it wasn’t long until Maloof became a proper photographer – one who would go on to have exhibitions around the world.
The images that sparked his new passion documented street life in Chicago and New York City from the ’50s to the ’90s. They captured spontaneous moments in lesser-visited neighborhoods; sadly, however, the photographer’s identity wasn’t yet known.
Over time Maloof recovered fragments from other auction buyers to piece together an archive of over 3,000 prints, up to 150,000 negatives, home movies, countless film rolls and audio recordings.
It was discovered that the collection was the work of Vivian Maier, a somewhat eccentric nanny who was born in New York City in 1926. As she moved from one employer to another she accumulated rolls of undeveloped film.
Maloof shared around 100 of her photos on his blog, but nobody paid much attention. A few months later he started a discussion with Flickr’s online community of photographers. The response, he wrote, was “overwhelming.”
He soon tracked down one of the families that Maier had worked for. In their possession were two lockers full of old newspapers, clippings, mail and hundreds of rolls of film, all of which was apparently destined for the garbage dump.
Maloof began piecing together a timeline of Maier’s life. Born in the Bronx to an Austrian father and a French mother, her childhood was spent between France and the U.S. In 1952 she bought her first Rolleiflex camera and began shooting the streets of Chicago.
“She was eccentric, strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private,” Maloof wrote after comparing personal accounts of people who knew her. “She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride.”
For a time, as a live-in nanny for a family in Chicago, Maier had her own dark room. But despite being able to develop her own films, she never showed the black-and-white prints to anyone.
Maier’s street photography is important because it captures a largely unseen aspect of big-city life. Because she documented marginalized groups and well-known sites that were later demolished, her work is both a historical record and a tribute to hidden communities.
“Maier’s photos also betray an affinity for the poor,” Maloof wrote on VivianMaier.com, “arguably because of an emotional kinship she felt with those struggling to get by.” He also explained that “her thirst to be cultured” inspired her to travel the world.
Indeed, Maier travelled to Canada, South America, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Asia. By the late ’90s, however, she had fallen on hard times, which resulted in her giving up photography. In 2007 her archive of images – which Maloof acquired – was auctioned after she failed to keep up her rent payments.
In 2008 Maier hit her head after slipping on an icy Chicago street. Her health declined, and a year later she died. The photographer left behind a vast unpublished body of work – one that deserved to be celebrated.
“I suppose nothing is meant to last forever,” Maier once said. “We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.”
Vivian Maier may have stepped off the wheel of life, but her spirit lives on through her work. Thanks to the dedication of one Chicago historian the world will cherish her remarkable images forever.